What’s Up With Probiotics?

Andrew Siegel, M.D.  Blog # 78


Probiotics (literally meaning “for life”) can be defined as live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer health benefits upon the host. Probiotics are the healthy and friendly bacteria that are present in fermented foods such as yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, soy products (including tempeh, miso and soy sauce), pickles, pickled vegetables and sauerkraut. Some probiotics provide an immune function whereas others optimize our intestinal function by improving the balance of microbes and inhibiting the presence of pathogens and toxin-producing bacteria.  Our intestines actually make up an important part of our immune system and in the event of an intestinal injury or infection, dangerous bacteria and/or their toxins can get into our blood and cause serious illness.

Dr. Elie Metchnikoff was a Nobel laureate who is regarded as the father of modern probiotics—in the early twentieth century, he made a seminal observation that the regular consumption of lactic acid bacteria in fermented dairy products was associated with enhanced health and longevity in Bulgarian peasants.

Probiotics may consist of bacteria strains as well as yeast strains.  Lactobacillus acidophilus is probably one of the most commonly known probiotics;  Bifidobacterium bifidus is another.  Sacchararomyces boulardi is a common yeast probiotic also known as nutritional yeast.

Probiotics themselves rely upon food in our diet for sustenance.  These food sources for probiotics are known as prebiotics.  This fuel for the probiotics consists of non-digestible food components, particularly fiber.  Thus, it is important to consume fiber regularly in order to maximize the benefits of any probiotics that we eat.

At birth, our intestinal contents are sterile. This changes at birth, when we depart the sterile environment of the womb.  Our initial exposure is to our mother’s vaginal flora or skin flora, depending upon whether the delivery is vaginal or via C-section.  This primes our immune system and provides us with our own micro-cosmos of healthy bacteria that will help us survive and thrive.  One of the key residents of a pregnant woman’s vagina is Lactobacillus. During vaginal delivery, the baby is exposed to an abundance of these bacteria, theorized to prepare the baby to be able to digest breast milk, as the bacteria produce lactase, an enzyme that helps break down the sugar in milk, aka lactose. Colonization of the gut is dependent upon our mode of feeding, whether it is breast-feeding or bottle-feeding.  Breast milk plays a very important role in stimulating our immune system. Breast-feeding further charges up the colonies of good bacteria in our gut, since breast milk contains hundreds of species of healthy bacteria.  In the first few years of life, our intestinal ecosystem gets increasingly complex as new microbes are added through contact with family members, our diet, and exposure to our environment including animals and other human beings

Probiotics can help us to optimize our health. They may reduce atopic dermatitis and infections during infancy. Lactobacillus has been shown to reduce vaginal yeast infections and may aid in modulating cholesterol levels, as well as reducing the incidence of obesity in pregnant females.  Lactobacillus produces lactase, so in the lactose intolerant population, these bacteria can help to digest milk products.  Lactobacillus increases the acidity of our intestines and can mitigate diarrhea because its presence crowds out pathogenic bacteria. Probiotics also serve a role in helping to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria when we take antibiotics, which kill many of the bacteria in our intestinal tract.

So, in order to maintain optimal immune function as well as intestinal health, it is important to get sufficient amounts of prebiotics and probiotics. Synbiotics refer to nutritional supplements combining both prebiotics and probiotics that work together in a synergistic fashion.

Plentiful intake of fiber from whole food sources will ensure getting enough prebiotic sources. In terms of a source of probiotics, it is as simple as adding fermented foods to one’s diet. Live probiotic cultures are present in fermented dairy products and probiotic-fortified foods, as well as tablets, capsules, and powders containing the bacteria in freeze-dried form.

A great source of probiotics is yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt.  Its thickness and creaminess lends itself to using it in place of many recipes that call for sour cream, including salad dressings, toppings for baked potatoes, and dips. In terms of whole food sources of probiotics versus supplement sources of probiotics, it is clear that  whole food sources trump pills and supplements.  With respect to supplements, there are purity and standardization issues as well as the question of whether live bacteria formulated in a pill will survive the harsh conditions in our stomach.  Under the circumstances of one disliking yogurt and other fermented foods as well as fiber, consideration for probiotics in pill and supplements should be a consideration.

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food


Available on Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Promiscuous-Eating-Understanding-Self-Destructive-ebook/dp/B004VS9AC6

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A special thank you to Professor Roberta H. Anding, RD, LD, CDE, CSSD of Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, Houston, Texas for providing much of this information via her awesome DVD series: Nutrition Made Clear, published by THE GREAT COURSES, Chantilly, Virginia. This DVD series consists of 36 thirty-minute lectures on nutrition that are comprehensive, enjoyable, and accessible and are a wonderful source of useful and practical information.

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One Response to “What’s Up With Probiotics?”

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